George Weigel about Obama, Pelosi, Biden on human life

This excellent piece is from George Weigel in Newsweek:

The Democrats and the Abortion Wars

Are Obama and Pelosi dodging the life-and-death question?

George Weigel
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Updated: 8:38 PM ET Aug 25, 2008

A few years ago, Richard Doerflinger, a pro-life Roman Catholic intellectual with decades of experience in the trenches of America’s culture wars, was invited to debate the moral and legal status of the human embryo before a large class of Harvard undergraduates. During the course of the discussion, Doerflinger’s Harvard faculty interlocutor drew a timeline of human biological development on the blackboard: conception, implantation, brain waves, viability, birth and so forth. His challenge to Doerflinger was to defend, in a nonarbitrary way and without reference to religious principles, the notion that society should recognize moral value and legal rights at any particular point along that line. If here, why here? If there, why there?

After the class, as the conversation continued with a few students and the professor, Doerflinger took a piece of chalk and extended the timeline to the end of the blackboard, where he wrote "Tenure." The students laughed, and got the message. The only point along that continuum that wouldn’t be arbitrary was the starting point—conception.  [Excellent.]

Perhaps Doerflinger should send his extended timeline to the Democratic National Convention in Denver[What about it would they understand?]

Throughout this lengthy campaign, the Democratic Party has worked hard to present itself as the party of intellect, competence and moral seriousness. Yet it’s off to a very rocky start in addressing the substance of the abortion issue—which remains, 35 years after Roe v. Wade, one of the most volatile in our public life. Talk this week by Democratic leaders about lowering the incidence of abortion in America will rightly be welcomed by pro-life Democrats, including the large number of pro-life African-American Democrats. But the recent public record has to make committed pro-lifers of both parties wonder just how serious the Democratic leadership is about engaging the abortion debate.

At the Aug. 16 "Civil Forum on the Presidency" at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Sen. Barack Obama was asked by pastor Rick Warren, "At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?" Obama quickly changed the subject to when life begins, and then demurred: "… whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity … is above my pay grade." Why, though? An embryology text widely used in American medical schools, "The Developing Human," is not so reticent about the science involved: "Human development begins at fertilization when a male gamete or sperm (spermatazoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to produce a single cell—a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual." [Good!] That is the science. It’s quite specific, and understanding the science here is surely not above the "pay grade" of a president who will be making public-policy decisions based on that science.

As for theology, there are, obviously, theological disagreements on the moral question of abortion. But while a president is not a theological referee, a president ought to have some grasp of the basic philosophical issues that have been vigorously debated in the abortion wars over the past several decades; these, after all, are the issues that should inform public policy. For decades now, pro-life advocates have been arguing, on the basis of reason informed by science, that nothing human was ever anything other than human, and that nothing not human will ever become human. These are things we can know prior to our theological convictions (or lack thereof). Does Senator Obama disagree with these claims?  [Good question!]

There are also serious questions of political theory and governance at stake in the abortion wars. Pro-lifers have long argued that allowing the government to declare an entire class of human creatures—the unborn—outside the protection of the law is a danger for everyone (wherever they may be located on the Doerflinger timeline). Does Senator Obama agree that the abortion debate involves that first principle of justice which teaches that innocent life is inviolable and that the equal protection of the laws must extend to everyone, regardless of condition? Justice Byron White—President John F. Kennedy’s sole appointment to the Supreme Court—described Roe v. Wade as an exercise in "raw judicial power." Does Senator Obama agree with Justice White that the Supreme Court overreached its authority in Roe v. Wade?

At Saddleback, Senator Obama expressed his "respect" for the views of consistent pro-lifers because their conviction that "life begins at conception … is a core issue of faith" for those voters. This, however, is another dodge. [Indeed it is.] Yes, for some pro-lifers, obedience to religious authority is the source of their conviction. Yet to suggest, as Obama did, that the pro-life position rests on private (and thus inherently undebatable) religious intuitions is to have missed virtually the entirety of the substantive pro-life argument since 1973. [And there is that ugly issue again: religion is pushed into the realm of the "private".  This is what we must resist.] Pro-lifers of both parties—some of them agnostic and atheists—have made genuinely public arguments, based on scientific knowledge, reason and democratic political theory. Judging from the evidence to date, the Democratic candidate for president has yet to engage those arguments seriously.

Then there are the multiple confusions of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. [Who raised "giving scandal" to a new level.] In her "Meet the Press" appearance Aug. 24, Pelosi was asked by Tom Brokaw whether she agreed with Senator Obama’s statements on abortion at Saddleback. Pelosi, declaring herself an "ardent, practicing Catholic," told Brokaw that "this is an issue that I have studied for a long time"—and then got herself into a deep muddle, in which she seemed to confuse St. Augustine with St. Thomas Aquinas (neither of whom, in any case, knew anything about modern embryology); misrepresented the settled (and scientifically informed) judgment of the Catholic Church on when life begins by declaring it an open question, and concluded by suggesting that none of this really makes a difference, because what the scientists, theologians, and philosophers say "… shouldn’t have an impact on a the woman’s right to choose." The Speaker then misrepresented the legal impact of Roe v. Wade, arguing that the Supreme Court hadn’t created a right to "abortion on demand"—which will come as news to those on both sides of the ongoing debates over partial-birth abortion and other late-term abortion procedures, parental- and spousal-notifications laws and regulatory oversight of abortion clinics.

Democrats who had hoped to persuade a good number of evangelicals and Catholics to return to their traditional 20th-century political home in November 2008 cannot be very encouraged by such intellectual disarray on the part of their party’s senior federal official. For more than three decades, the abortion license created by the high court in Roe v. Wade has been an important factor in determining American voting behavior—in more than a few instances, the decisive factor. Yet, judging by her performance on "Meet The Press" (which seemed to surprise the usually unflappable Tom Brokaw), the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives is as ill-informed on the scientific and legal facts involved in the abortion debate as she is of the teaching of the Catholic Church. [Well said!]  Speaker Pelosi is, like most "ardent, practicing" Catholics, a great admirer of the late Pope John Paul II. Was John Paul wrong, one wants to ask Speaker Pelosi, when he wrote in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life] that "abortion … always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being"? Was he wrong when he further stated that this moral truth could be known by reason, and was thus a matter of grave concern to public policy?  [I think we can guess her answer.]

However far they may be below the pay grade of a pope, pro-life advocates deserve the respect of having their arguments taken seriously. Given the opportunity to do just that at Saddleback, Barack Obama opted for rhetorical finesse over substantive engagement; [Pay attention:] that choice may have done fatal damage to his capacity to peel evangelical and Catholic swing voters away from the now-tattered Republican coalition. Given a nationally televised opportunity to repair some of that damage, Nancy Pelosi, seemingly bereft of coherent ideas, could only fall back on the mantra of "choice." Appeals to Joe Biden’s being a Catholic kid from hardscrabble Scranton, Pa., will not likely persuade many committed pro-life voters that the water is once again safe in the Democratic Party; Biden’s NARAL ratings may not be as glowing as Obama’s, but no serious pro-lifer thinks of the senator from Delaware as a pro-life legislator.

The talking points developed for Democratic leaders appearing on the pre-convention talk shows stressed the economy, housing, jobs, and other "middle-class" issues. This suggests that Democratic strategists are discounting the life issues as major factors in 2008. Those strategists have been surprised before; they may be surprised again. In any case, the country deserves something more serious than what it has been given by the Democratic leadership on what has been, and remains, one of the defining issues of our time.

Well written!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Wendy says:

    I just plain disagree with the republican concept that life should \”only\” be protected at the beginning. I think it should be protected all along the timeline. Beginning to end. When that party shows up, let me know they\’ve got my vote.

  2. TJM says:

    Wendy, it’s not a “republican” concept. Please stop the partisan sniping and stick to the point. Tom

  3. Massachusetts Catholic says:

    On the other hand, Nancy Pelosi has advanced our understanding of theology by creating a new category of ignorance: vincible, invincible and *risible.*

  4. Deusdonat says:

    TJM & Wendy – from the 2008 Republican Platform:
    We believe that human life is sacred, created in the image of God. Life begins at the point of fertilization and ends at the point of natural death. All innocent human life must be protected.

  5. TJM says:

    Thanks, Deusdonat. I guess Wendy is mistaken and will soon be issuing a heartfelt apology. Tom

  6. Wendy says:

    Sorry if you are offended Tom, but the board seemed very partisan to me lately. So I posted a partisan response. And I made the point that I wished to make. …

    [And now I’ll be deleting the rest of this comment, and other comments that try to drag this entry and my blog into a partisan mud fight. – Fr. Z]

  7. JohnE says:

    All policies, whether they be regarding foreign policy, the economy, the environment, programs to aid the poor, etc., will eventually fail if they are not built upon Christ-like compassion. If our society disregards the most helpless and innocent of human beings — the unborn — then we sow the seeds of a less compassionate future generation that will increasingly become little more than Darwinian competitors, generating policies that are more and more to their own self-interests. They will be policies built on the shifting sands of power and popular opinion.

    Any improvements made to a society that continues to disregard the sanctity of the unborn will be like adding new siding, landscaping, and carpeting to a house with a crumbling foundation. No matter how badly needed those improvements may be, if you don’t take care of the foundation, all else will soon be laid to waste as well.

  8. Lydia says:

    Fr. Z,

    I find it ironic that you quote George Weigel on Obama’s thesis that the pro-life position rests on a private intuition which pushes the debate into the private sphere, since Weigel himself supports a philosophy which itself, according to David Schindler, makes religion a private act.

  9. johnny says:

    GW is right on as usual. The fact that he is writing in Newsweek is also very good, although I’m not sure how many people actual READ it anymore, I know I don’t unless standing in line in the grocery store (which is about how long it takes to read anything in the contents of value.)

    NB I’ve resisted the urge, and stuck strictly to topic!

  10. Mark G. says:

    Has everyone read the US Bishop’s document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship?

    They have a web site devoted to it:

    An important point in paragraph 90 is that abortion is not just one issue among many. They state that “Not all issues are equal… Some involve matters of intrinsic evil that can never be supported.”

    It also addresses virtually every other concern and point listed above. There is also a 2-page “summary” that was distributed in our parish that is also quite good.

    Besides debating, don’t forget to pray for our country and it’s leaders, especially those in need of serious conversion of heart. Invoke Our Mother’s help, as this country is under her maternal care. God bless.

  11. Supertradmom says:

    One of my concerns about daily reports from pundits and politicians concerning the Life issue is that pro-choice is couched in the “rhetoric of envy”. Democrats have changed the basis for arguing about abortion to make it sound as if it is a Poor vs. Rich issue, just as universal health care has become a class warfare issue. Marxism lies behind the rhetoric of envy which, to paraphrase states that “McCain has eight houses and therefore cannot understand the American voter” and so on. Abortion becomes part of this rhetoric, which plainly casts all Republicans are rich (we are not) and all Democrats as poor or at least struggling. Abortion fits into this so-called “caring rhetoric”. As long as people buy the package, they do not see the fine print, nor care to do so. Abortion becomes an emotional topic, not a rational argument.

    A second problem is that many people simply do not recognize or believe in the natural law philosophy and therefore create their own moral frameworks.

    This is why some good people seem confused. But truly, there is only ONE ISSUE and that issue is LIFE, the life of a baby in utero, the life of a Terri Schiavo, my life, your life………

  12. Mark says:

    I think the notion of “ensoulment”, which sometimes lurks in the background of this issue, is a useless relic that should be thrown out on the garbage heap of history. It’s is unanswerable, and can easily be used to obfuscate the fact that life begins at conception, as seems to be the case here.

  13. HQD says:

    The best part about Weigel’s article was when he quoted an embryology text. Whether you believe the ensoulment issue or not, the point is, without that little fertilization act there’s no you or I. So simple! Yet people want to use loud rhetoric and use Augustine out of context and try to bend Truth to a party’s platform and “personal belief.”

  14. Mark G. says:

    Mark: I agree that the “ensoulment argument” has been hijacked by the Speaker to fit her position; however, the question itself is valid.

    A great number of “unanswerable” things are of extreme importance to our faith life and eternal destination – that’s why they are Mysteries. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t understand some things about them, like what they are or are not and the consequences that flow from that.

    Also, this particular “unaswerable” continues to resound in faith and practice now as just recently the pope made a statement regarding the fate of children who die before baptism and this includes the unborn in some regard.

  15. Mark says:

    Dear Mark G:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. For what it’s worth, my opinion on the “ensoulment” issue, which I can’t prove with any historical data, is this:

    It’s plausible that it’s a relic of the misty times when expecting mothers, feeling the first movements of the baby assumed that life, or a “quickening”, has entered into the baby’s body. Prior to this “quickening”, they very likely already knew that they were expecting from the other changes in their body. Can we propose that the idea of “ensoulment” developed from here, and was then further considered and commented upon by prominent theologians of the day? Perhaps the historians or anthropologists among us can weigh in on this issue.

    In my opinion, the “ensoulment” question today is incompatible with the present scientific knowledge of human development, and should be discarded. Let’s just say that a human person, body and soul, exists from the moment of conception.

  16. BobP says:

    This is totally irresponsible writing. Joe Biden presided over the very talks designed to keep Clarence Thomas off the Supreme Court. But he did a credible job, even getting his fellow Democrats to vote Clarence at the risk of their political careers. Say what you
    want about who’s pro-life and who’s not, but you need to look at their records.

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